30 April 2015: Redoubtable Reformer

Redoubtable Reformer: The life and times of Cheah Cheang Lim

Redoubtable Reformer: The life and times of Cheah Cheang Lim

The life of Cheah Cheang Lim as a spokesman for change is an inseparable part of Anglo-Chinese Malayan history. In Francis Cooray’s story and Khoo Salma Nasution’s account of socioeconomic transitions in Perak and Penang, we are reminded of some of the transnational factors that laid the foundations of modern Malaysia. Both the outline of one man’s life and the well-researched study of what made him a tireless reformer deserve to be read by all who wonder about the country’s multifarious history. It is time for other such stories to be written in order that Malaysia’s rich past is not lost. – Wang Gungwu, National University of Singapore


The passage of time, coupled with the elusiveness of memory, has a way of diluting, and sometimes even deleting, historical figures and accomplishments. What were once regarded as watershed periods and achievement milestones end up falling into the cracks of obscurity. The story of Cheah Cheang Lim, a name probably unfamiliar with the ‘now’ generation, is still worth retelling as it certainly imparts important lessons even today.

Known as a tin and rubber magnate, Cheah was born on 6 December 1875 into an entrepreneurial background – his grandfather ran a pepper and cloth trading company, dabbled in plantations and the import and export of goods to and from China. Cheah schooled at King Edward VII and held down an assortment of jobs before acquiring his first tin mine, the 50-acre Lahat Kiri Mines. He was later appointed the chairman of Ipoh Foundry Ltd and director of the Tanglin Rubber Estate Syndicate Ltd. Gifted with a sharp business acumen, Cheah took great interest in securing the market price for rubber and tin.

According to Francis Cooray, [Cheah] was always on the lookout for opportunities whereby he could benefit the country at large and specially the Chinese community, particularly the younger generation, setting up scholarships and donations to schools. It would take many pages to recapitulate the various causes which have benefited either by his generous donations, but the Ipoh Maternity Hospital, which was famous for providing free treatment to the poor, free maternity delivery and the training of midwives, is a case in point. A firm believer in the importance of education, Cheah tirelessly persuaded the education authorities to restore the Queen’s Scholarships in the Federated Malay States, reminding the British Empire to live up to its promises. In addition, he also founded the Cheah Boon Hean Scholarship for his alma mater.

Redoubtable Reformer: The life and times of Cheah Cheang Lim was based on an unpublished 1935 manuscript authored by Francis Cooray, a Ceylonese journalist with the Malay Mail. Khoo Salma Nasution literally breathed new life into it by compiling a wealth of material, including speeches, letters and family photographs, to present a vivid impression of this ‘gentleman capitalist’. This biography explores the historical identity and complex cultural affiliations of the Straits Chinese in a nascent nation, illuminating the questions of ethnicity, citizenship and nationality, which continue to be debated in Malaysia today.

Redoubtable Reformer: The life and times of Cheah Cheang Lim was launched in Penang in May 2015.


The story of Cheah Cheang Lim serves as a reminder to the public that the stories of our past not only matter, but can shed light on how we move into the future.There are so many more personalities whose contribution to society will lie buried forever if no effort is made to sieve through historical documents and other sources to make them come to life again, this time in the minds of young Malaysians. – Tan Sri Dr. Khoo Kay Kim, Emeritus Professor of Malaysian History